Saturday, September 09, 2006

Laughing Buddha Jumping Off Pagoda

The problem with Shanghai is that, once you've gone, omigosh look at all those amazing buildings, there's not a heckuva lot to do. Not only that, but it's quaint poverty or incredible somethingorother that makes for great touristing, not pleasant and moderate middle class values. And by the time we got to the French Concession and found not delightful art deco buildings but rather shabby neighborhoods, we realized that we had now done Shanghai.

So bright and early the next morning we were off for the one hour train to Sozhou. Sozhou, you say? Gesundheit. Actually, Sozhou is one of the classic Chinese cities, famed for its silk, its location on the Grand Canal, and its many fine and old gardens. It's also a city of 6 million, so I really wasn't expecting much.

But I did want to get a glimpse of the 'real' China, the country outside of Shanghai and Beijing. Not to mention the sights along the way. A cab (they're all honest, by the way) took us to the crowded but still manageable station, we got on a new, air-conditioned train car in an orderly way, and watched the flat, rather orderly countryside roll by. By 9:45 we were in Sozhou and had deposited our bags at the left luggage office.

A small crowd of tour/huckster guys surrounded us, although--like the rest of China so far--they were nowhere near as annoying as such people can be. One guy in particular kept following us for over a block, promising to show us the entire city's sights for 80 yuan/two people, all day, and in an airconditioned minivan. Since I wasn't giving him anything up front, we finally decided to go along for his ride, just to see what the scam was.

First he took us to the tallest pagoda south of the Yangtze and west of the Pecos. He produced two 25 yuan entrance tickets (does he steal them???), Sumi and I entered the site, and we climbed up all seven stories.

The view down was very steep, and all around us to the horizons stretched an endless Sozhou. What to do but to climb back down. Where the guy (and his brother) were waiting to take us to the 'silk museum'.

What transpired was that you got an interesting three minute tour of silk production, after which you were deposited in a giant showroom of silk stuff for sale. I knew that these sort of places are always on tourist tours, and the driver always gets a commission from the store, but I also knew that our guy wasn't going to get very much off of the 50 yuan pair of silk slippers I bought.

So we're back in the minivan and he starts taking us to a 'boat tour' for 150 yuan. I tell him, no, we want to see the gardens. So he gives up on the boat and takes us over to the 'Number 1 Gardens'. Which turns out to be a recently created facsimile of the many, many real gardens that we could have gone to. As he drops us off, he asks for a 50 yuan 'deposit' for his full day tour, and I assume that that's the last I'm going to see of him. Which at this point kind of suits me just fine.

We're there anyway, so we paid the entrance fee and started walking around with all the tour groups, most of whom were Chinese. Sumi said, 'Great. Chinese gardens. Tranquility and peace. Okay, I get it. What else they got?' When we got to the end there was a little antique boat that we squooshed into and which then punted us back across the pond.

Out in the parking lot, our ride was indeed long gone. We walked about 50 yards to a main road and hailed a cab back into town, right up to the Sicily Pub, probably the only place in Sozhou that serves western food. Two plates of pasta and some ice cream later, we were ready for some more gardens.

This time we took a bicycle rickshaw, which Sumi didn't want to do at first because we were exploiting the poor guy. But he really, really wanted to be exploited, and he begged and begged, so finally she relented. Still and all it was kind of pathetic as all 95 pounds of him huffed and puffed us the mile and a half to the Garden of the Administrator of the Nets.

Down an alleyway and into the garden, which at less than one acre is the smallest in Suzhou. But it just reeked of perfect harmony. (By the way, in case you don't know, Chinese gardens don't deal with pedestrian things like flowers, just mostly rocks and trees and water.) And what made it really special was that a Chinese film crew was filming a guy and gal in classic old timey Chinese garb, so that as long as our mind's eye had a very small and precise frame we could transport ourselves back to a more perfectly harmonious era.

By then it was around 4:30 in the afternoon, and we had a couple of hours to kill before the evening train. Our Lonely Planet guide said that there was an internet cafe in town, so we went looking for it. Unfortunately, like many things that the Lonely Planet guide says are there, it wasn't. So we ended up at the downtown Starbuck's, very slowly consuming our cheesecake and frappucino.

Again, I have to say that I'm impressed with how the Communists are running the show. I'm well aware that off in the rural countryside there is still a whole lot of poverty, but it's still difficult to deny just how entrenched and wide the middle class seems to be. Not that they're yet near the level of France or Canada, but, again, considering where they were a few short years ago, it's incredible how many can now afford to waste their money at Starbuck's.

By seven we were ready to go back to the train station, and by 7:40 we were on the train. All that had been available was 'hard sleeper', and I was expecting the hard sleeper of old: three tiers of thin slabs to lie on, noisy, smelly peasants all around you, and loud martial music blaring through loudspeakers. Instead there was a new air-conditioned car, calm cabinmates, and soft Chinese pop muzacked in. We had gotten the last tickets available, so we were up top, but once we climbed up and up and squeezed in, it was kind of comfortable. The moving train immediately rocked us to sleep.


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